In 1969, UCSB ecologist Dr. Garrett Hardin published an essay entitled The Tragedy of the Commons in the journal Science which launched him into academic notoriety. In essence, the essay illustrated the fact that when a shared and depletable resource is left unmanaged, the consumers of that resource act in their own short term interests and exhaust the resource, sometimes completely out of existence. Commonly used examples to demonstrate the concept are shared grazing lands and shared fisheries. Ranchers and fishermen understand they have competitors for the resource, and they anticipate that their competitors will consume it. In order to ensure they enjoy the benefits of the resource themselves, they act in their own self interest and use the resource as much as they can while it still exists. Failing to do so could drive them out of business. Of course, if the resource can only regenerate at a certain rate and requires a certain baseline level to sustain itself, the resource will become depleted to the point where it can no longer regenerate itself. For example, if fishermen take their stock below a certain level, there will be no more fish to breed. Likewise, overgrazing can lead to the erosion of topsoil and thus result in barren lands devoid of vegetation. So, in acting in one’s own short term self interest, one can do substantial harm to the shared resource which the collective relies on for long term success.
So, what can this possibly have to do with UCSB soccer? It has to do with how the individual Big West schools schedule their out-of-conference (OOC) matches, and the impact it has on their collective RPIs. Within the scheduling lies a paradox: in order to achieve a high RPI value, one must schedule teams that one anticipates will have relatively high winning percentages. However, in scheduling those better-than-average teams, one is likely to see one’s own winning percentage suffer, and if every school in the conference pursues a challenging schedule, then no school will have a high opponents winning percentage (50% of the raw RPI) and thus no school can achieve a high value RPI as we all turn into the proverbial crabs in the bucket. In pursing one’s own narrow self interests without consideration for the whole, it leads to collective demise.
While it is true that a challenging schedule is required for the possibility of earning an at-large bid to the NCAAs, Big West schools have seemingly been taking an individualistic approach in recent years. When too many of them schedule with only its own self interest in mind, it virtually assures that all of them will suffer a similar RPI fate. There is no better formula for achieving a high RPI than to maximize winning percentages within a conference through selective OOC scheduling while simultaneously minimizing the numbers of teams that act as an anchor that stunts the RPI potential of the others.
Coaches understandably answer the siren call to challenge their team by putting them on the road versus traditionally strong teams. Steve Sampson has done just that by starting the 2017 season with 4 straight matches on the road versus Indiana, Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Maryland. Sure, playing those matches tests one’s team, and if they can eek out a couple results, the RPI bonuses could be significant. But much more likely, playing those teams will result in a poor to mediocre record entering conference play. Of course, after Cal Poly lost to Notre Dame, Sampson was proud of his team. A moral victory for him, but an RPI drag for everyone else.
— Steve Sampson (@stevesampsonusa) August 27, 2017
When Cal Poly announced its schedule over the summer, it trumpeted the schedule it had put together. If you’re a member of the Big West, especially in the North division, this boast caused alarm.
— Cal Poly Mens Soccer (@CPMensSoccer) July 13, 2017
If the conference as a whole were to explore a mutually beneficial approach, it would likely raise everyone’s RPI. Doing so would increase the odds of receiving multiple NCAA bids. Receiving multiple NCAA bids increases the profile of the conference. An increased conference profile helps recruit better players. Better players results in better results, and better results yield better RPIs. Before you know it, you’ve found yourself enjoying a beneficial positive feedback loop.
Of course, the conference doesn’t schedule the matches for its members. The coaches do so, and those coaches have an obligation to a number of stakeholders to maximize their school’s individual success. Maximizing success also ensures their own employment. Without coordination with other coaches, they will do what is in their own best interest, and that likely means a challenging schedule that puts them in the best position to earn an NCAA bid. Like fishermen and ranchers in an unregulated environment, they are out to extract whatever they can without thought about the long term consequences to the collective.
So, how should coaches approach scheduling? A few ideas:
- Schedule as many matches at home as possible. On average, one’s winning percentage is higher at home. Should you lose or draw to a team with a poor final RPI rank, the resulting penalty is largely self-contained to that school. Plus, if you’re doing poorly at home versus poor teams, then you’re likely not good enough for the NCAAs anyway.
- Schedule as many teams as you can reasonably beat. This doesn’t mean playing the worst teams you can find. It means being realistic about your own quality and playing teams that are roughly equal or just below your expected quality. Don’t worry about your opponents winning percentage! If every Big West team follows this approach, most teams would realize a substantial RPI benefit once conference games are played, and you will have the opportunity to be in a favorable position when the NCAA Selection Committee makes its selections. Granted, this scheduling approach is easier to implement in non-western states where the pickings are more plentiful, but beneficial match-ups do exist west of the Mississippi. Pro tip: schedule average teams from very weak conferences.
- Schedule weaker teams from out-of-region. Ideally, teams from the West should play the weakest teams from other parts of the country. This approach captures RPI values that reverberate among all the Western teams. Conversely, playing against the more prominent teams from the more prominent out-of-region conferences when one’s prospects for a result are poor endangers the RPI for all the teams that are reliant on a robust regional RPI framework.
- Schedule no more than 2 traditionally good teams. Swinging for the fences like Cal Poly is doing this year just hurts the conference (as well as the entire region). However, if your team is expected to peak in a given year, feel free to go for that one or two marquee victory on the road that can earn you a nice RPI bonus. But be realistic!
Prior to the season starting and upon looking over the schedules of the Big West teams, I wrote about the concerns I had regarding our RPI potenital. I know Vom Steeg understands the RPI quite well, and I suspect he shares my frustration with the rest of the conference, especially Cal Poly. I also happen to know that former Gaucho and current Loyola head coach Neil Jones attempted to propose an RPI scheduling strategy among the head coaches of the Missouri Valley Conference. I don’t know if that meeting of the minds prompted any coaches to change their approach to scheduling, but Jones’ attempt to seek a mutually beneficial strategy among the conference’s coaches was commendable and worth pursuing.
If these concepts were presented and if given the opportunity, would the coaches of the Big West employ a collective approach that would likely increase their prospects for success or might they reject cooperation (possibly through feigning cooperation) and prefer to employ a game theory approach where they attempt to anticipate the cooperative actions of others and then act in ways to solely enrich their own individual prospects? Unfortunately, The Tragedy of the Commons suggests the latter approach as inevitable.